Injured servicemen go from the front line to dig site to unearth Malton Roman fort

ALTHOUGH their fields of operation could not be more different, the skills of the modern soldier are very similar to that of the professional archaeologist.

Retired officer Ann Penso, York University's Steve Roskams and retired Royal Artillery soldier Tom Hunter. Picture: Richard Ponter

Techniques used to scrutinise the ground for improvised explosive devices are among those being used by former military personnel and veterans to excavate a Roman fort and settlement in Old Malton, North Yorkshire.

Whether it be the knowledge of geophysics used in ordnance recovery, mapping, navigation or simply the physical ability to cope with hard manual work in inclement weather conditions - the close correlation of the skills needed in the two disciplines was noted by an organisation founded in 2012 to help rehabilitate injured service personnel recently returned from operations.

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The Defence Archaeology Group brings together service personnel from around the world to offer them and their family members the chance to build a new and supportive community in the present by excavating the past.

Retired United States Army officer Ann Penso discovers a jaw bone Picture: Richard Ponter

In its latest project, Operation Nightingale, it has joined with the University of York, the Malton Estate, York St John University and Historic England to bring a group of veterans, including some injured in Afghanistan and other operations, to Yorkshire to assist with their recovery.

The service personnel, who have both physical and mental health injuries, are focusing on an area east of the Roman fort at Malton.

Only it outline is known, based on excavations which took place some decades ago, and discoveries are already being made by the team.

Ann Penso, a former staff sergeant from Florida, who served with the United States Army in Iraq, is in Yorkshire for three weeks taking part in the dig.

A button from the First World War and an ancient Roman plate fragment are discovered. Picture: Richard Ponter

Yesterday she unearthed a jaw bone at the site.

She said: “This project has been fantastic for me. It helps me use the skills I acquired in the military with the new skills I am learning during fieldwork.

“I’m doing really well now. This really helps me be productive and reminds me that I’m still useful and that I can still do things regardless of my physical limitations.”

Initial excavations were undertaken at Old Malton in the 1930s, exposing parts of the fort defences and some interior buildings.

Retired United States Army officer Ann Penso discovers a jaw bone Picture: Richard Ponter

Steve Roskams, from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, said the project would expand our understanding of the archaeology at the fort, but also helps support injured personnel.

Work is centred on a road running away from the fort to the north east, to better understand the relationship the soldiers had with the civilians living in the community around the fort.

The Roman site at Malton dates back to the late first century AD, but the soldiers were still there in the third century, when they were more settled, and had permission to marry civilians.

Mr Roskams said: “We’re really interested in the relationship between the soldiers and the civilians - are there domestic houses along this road, for example? Did their meat and textiles come from the same place?

A button from the First World War and an ancient Roman plate fragment are discovered. Picture: Richard Ponter

“We’ve already discovered one side of the road had buildings that seem to have been shops, that would draw people from the surrounding area to the fort.”

Many of the soldiers who have been taking part on the project have never worked in archaeology before, but Mr Roskams said their team building skills and ability to follow instructions made them fit in very easily.

Defence Archaeology Group project manager Sgt Diarmaid Walshe, who is a qualified archaeologist, said it was also building links with the local community, who veterans would normally have no interaction with.

He added: “The project helps those taking part rebuild their self-esteem, provide them with a sense of purpose and give them something positive to strive for.”

Last summer, Operation Nightingale worked on the major project to excavate the Roman and Iron Age settlements that straddle the A1 at Marne Barracks near Catterick.

The Roman site at Malton dates back to the late first century AD.

A spokesman for the Malton Estate said: “We are delighted to support this project, which not only brings benefit to the local community, but also helps our military personnel recover from injuries suffered during service for this country.”

CODE-NAMED Operation Nightingale, the project was developed to utilise both the technical and social aspects of the field of acheaology to help in the recovery of sodiers injured in Afghanistan.

It was developed in part by Sergeant Diarmaid Walshe of 1st Battalion, The Rifles.

As an archaeologist himself, he recognised that archaeology had many elements that could help address some of the complex needs of injured soldiers.

Some of the founding fathers of modern archaeology were senior figures within the British army including Lt-General Pitt Rivers, Brigadier Mortimer Wheeler, Col TE Lawrence, and O.G.S Crawford to name but a few. Meanwhile, many of those who grew the discipline in the post-War world of university expansion and Rescue Archaeology learnt many of their skills in uniform.